A guide to ‘Mediscare’ tactics, GOP version

at 06:00 AM ET, 11/09/2011


(This is from a Democratic rally last month but the concept is the same, no matter which party) (Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)

“President Obama’s Medicare Plan: Balance the Budget on the Backs of Seniors!”

mailer sent to family in Belle Haven, Va., on behalf of Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) by American Action Network

A reader sent us a copy of this mailer, asking if there was any truth to it. She thought it appeared dubious.

The mailer certainly looks scary, with bold headlines. “Obama’s Medicare Plan Will Increase Medicare Premiums” says one headline, looking like it was ripped from a real newspaper. But then deeper in the flier it gets more specific — it warns that Obama wants to change the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan with “Medicaid-style price controls.” It declares that the “impact of Obama’s price controls would be devastating.”

Then the flier focuses on the lawmaker: “Thank Congressman Scott Rigell for standing up for seniors and fighting to protect and preserve Medicare.”

We have previously decried the “Mediscare” tactics of both parties. As it happens, our colleagues at factcheck.org and PolitiFact.com back in August looked closely at this flier and found serious problems with it. But we think there is still an opportunity to use this flier as an example of deceptive and misleading advertising.

The Facts

American Action Network, which produced the fliers, calls itself a center-right “action tank” and aims to raises $25 million for the coming election. Its Web site says that it distributed the flier on behalf of 57 lawmakers in the House and Senate — all of them Republicans.

Here is what the ad looks like (This one is for Rep. Ben Quayle of Arizona but they all look the same):

American Action Network mailing

Here is a guide to the suspicious elements that should make any recipient want to toss it into the trash:

The Red Herring

President Obama is featured throughout the ad. This is “President Obama’s Medicare Plan.” Or: “President Obama is trying to radically change the Medicare Prescription Drug Program.”

Remember when Republicans used to claim that Obama had no Medicare plan?

In any case, this is not an Obama plan. This flier is actually attacking a proposal by congressional Democrats, sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in the House and Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.V.) in the Senate. The sponsors say the plan is designed to lower prices for lower-income Medicare prescription drug beneficiaries, mainly by requiring drug companies to pay a rebate for drugs sold to low-income recipients, as they previously had done before the creation of Medicare Part D, which provides for prescription drugs.

The plan is projected to reduce costs to taxpayers by $112 billion over ten years. Note that this would barely put a dent in the $6.7 trillion projected deficit over the same time period, so it is a real stretch to claim that Obama would “balance the budget on the backs of seniors.”

This concept is also not a new idea. The Congressional Budget Office and the Bipartisan Deficit Commission have suggested versions of this plan over the years. But White House spokesman Nick Papas said it is incorrect to say the legislation is the president’s plan.

“While some elements of this proposal were included in the president’s recommendations to the super committee [to reduce the deficit], the Administration did not issue a statement on this legislation,” Papas said.

The Phony Newspaper Headline

Newspaper headlines generally don’t have asterisks. But the headline in this ad — “Obama’s Medicare Plan Will Increase Medicare Premiums” — has one. The asterisk directs you to an official looking Web address — http://bit.ly/MedicarePartD — that actually is the Web site for American Action Network.

So what’s the source for these declarative claims, such as premiums increasing “up to 40%”? A study produced by a sister organization of American Action Network, known as the American Action Forum. The study was co-written by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the Action Forum and a former director of Congressional Budget Office. Citing a study produced by another arm of the same organization is a surefire sign of potential bias.

We are not going to bother with the assumptions of the study, but even it says that 40 percent increase cited in the ad (actually, 39.4 percent) is the upper-end of the range; the low end is 19.6 percent. Other experts, not surprisingly, come to different conclusions, saying the plan will reduce costs. So it is misleading to draw such definitive conclusions from what are actually predictions that depend entirely on certain assumptions.

In fact, the study has a very funny footnote. The study notes that Part D costs have been 40 percent lower than the CBO’s initial ten-year estimate. The footnote reveals that the author of the study “had a significant role in developing those initial estimates while serving as Director of the Congressional Budget Office.” Oops.

The Mom-and-Apple-Pie Line

“Thank [Republican lawmaker] for standing up for seniors and fighting to protect and preserve Medicare.” This gets a double asterisk, which takes you to a link for a New York Times listing for the votes on … the House Republican budget. Gee, isn’t this the bill that Democrats (misleadingly) say will “eliminate” Medicare?

The Mysterious Backer

If you get a mailing like this, look who produced it. In this case, it was not the congressman but the American Action Network. The group, which has a who’s who of Republicans on its board, does not disclose its backers. For instance, it would be helpful to know whether anyone associated with the pharmaceutical industry is a major contributor. (The group did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Pinocchio Test

Virtually every aspect of this flier is dubious or misleading, worthy of Four Pinocchios. But the Democrats have been equally guilty of misrepresentation when it comes to Medicare. Both parties appear determined to use the health-care program for the elderly as a cudgel against their opponents. Our advice to readers: simply tune out the noise.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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